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About Mongolian (Traditional) Language

The Mongolian language (Mongγol kele; Cyrillic: Монгол хэл, Mongol khel ) is the best-known member of the Mongolic language family. It has about 5.7 million speakers, including over 90% of the residents of Mongolia and many of the Mongolian residents of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region of China. In Mongolia, the Khalkha dialect of Mongolian, written in Cyrillic, is predominant; in Inner Mongolia, the language is more dialectally diverse and written in the traditional Mongolian script.

Mongolian has vowel harmony and a complex syllabic structure for a Mongolic language that allows up to three syllable-final consonants. It is a typical agglutinative language that relies on suffix chains in the verbal and nominal domains. While the basic word order is subject–object–predicate, the noun phrase order is relatively free, so functional roles are indicated by a system of about eight grammatical cases. There are five voices. Verbs are marked for voice, aspect, tense, and epistemic modality/evidentiality. In sentence linking, a special role is played by converbs.

Modern Mongolian evolved from "Middle Mongolian", the language spoken in the Mongol Empire of the 13th and 14th centuries. In the transition, a major shift in the vowel harmony paradigm occurred, long vowels developed, the case system was slightly reformed, and the verbal system was restructured.

Geographic distribution

Mongolian is the national language of the country of Mongolia, where it is spoken by about 2.5 million people, and an official language of China's Inner Mongolia region, where it is spoken by 2.7 million or more people. The exact number of Mongolian speakers in China is hard to determine, as there is no data available on Chinese citizens' language proficiency. There are roughly five million ethnic Mongolians in China, but the use of Mongolian is declining among them, especially among younger speakers in urban areas, due to the dominance of Mandarin Chinese. The great majority of speakers of Mongolian proper in China live in Inner Mongolia; in addition, some speakers of the Kharchin and Khorchin dialects live in areas of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang that border Inner Mongolia.

Classification and dialects

The delimitation of the Mongolian language is a much disputed theoretical problem, one whose resolution would probably require a set of comparable linguistic criteria for all major varieties. Such data might account for the historical development of the Mongolian dialect continuum, as well as for its sociolinguistic qualities. Though phonological and lexical studies are comparatively well developed, the basis has yet to be laid for a comparative morphosyntactic study, for example between such highly diverse varieties as Khalkha and Khorchin.

Mongolian belongs to the Mongolic languages. Other languages in this grouping include Khamnigan and Dagur, spoken in Eastern Greater Mongolia and in the vicinity of Tacheng in Xinjiang; Shira Yugur, Bonan, Dongxiang, Monguor, and Kangjia, spoken in China's Qinghai and Gansu regions; and the probably extinct Moghol of Afghanistan. The status of certain varieties in the Mongolic group—whether they are languages distinct from Mongolian or just dialects of it—is disputed. There are at least three such varieties: Oirat (including the Kalmyk variety) and Buryat, both of which are spoken in Russia, Mongolia, and China; and Ordos, spoken around Inner Mongolia's Ordos City. The Altaic theory proposes that the Mongolic family is a member of a larger Altaic family that would also include the Turkic and Tungusic, and usually Korean and Japonic languages as well.

There is no disagreement that the Khalkha dialect of the Mongolian state is Mongolian. Beyond this one point, however, agreement ends. For example, the influential classification of Sanžeev (1953) proposed a "Mongolian language" consisting of just the three dialects Khalkha, Chakhar, and Ordos, with Buryat and Oirat judged to be independent languages. On the other hand, Luvsanvandan (1959) proposed a much broader "Mongolian language" consisting of a Central dialect (Khalkha, Chakhar, Ordos), an Eastern dialect (Kharchin, Khorchin), a Western dialect (Oirat, Kalmyk), and a Northern dialect (consisting of two Buryat varieties). Some Western scholars propose that the relatively well researched Ordos variety is an independent language due to its conservative syllable structure and phoneme inventory. While the placement of a variety like Alasha, which is under the cultural influence of Inner Mongolia but historically tied to Oirat, and of other border varieties like Darkhad would very likely remain problematic in any classification, the question of how to classify Chakhar, Khalkha, and Khorchin in relation to each other and in relation to Buryat and Oirat remains the central problem. The split of [tʃ] into [tʃ] before *i and [ts] before all other reconstructed vowels, which is found in Mongolia but not in Inner Mongolia, is often cited as a fundamental distinction, for example Proto-Mongolic *tʃil, Khalkha /tʃiɮ/, Chakhar /tʃil/ 'year' versus Proto-Mongolic *tʃøhelen, Khalkha /tsooɮəŋ/, Chakhar /tʃooləŋ/ 'few'. On the other hand, the split between the past tense verbal suffixes -sŋ in the Central varieties vs. -dʒɛː in the Eastern varieties is usually seen as a merely stochastic difference.

In Inner Mongolia, official language policy divides the Mongolian language into three dialects: South Mongolian, Oirat, and Barghu-Buryat. "South Mongolian" is said to consist of Chakhar, Ordos, Baarin, Khorchin, Kharchin, and Alasha. The authorities have synthesized a literary standard for Mongolian in China whose grammar is said to be based on "South Mongolian" and whose pronunciation is based on the Chakhar dialect as spoken in the Plain Blue Banner. Dialectologically, however, western "South Mongolian" dialects are closer to Khalkha than they are to eastern "South Mongolian" dialects: for example, Chakhar is closer to Khalkha than to Khorchin.

Writing systems

Mongolian has been written in a variety of alphabets. The traditional Mongolian script was adapted from Uyghur script probably at the very beginning of the 13th century and from that time underwent some minor disambiguations and supplementations. Between 1930 and 1932, a short-lived attempt was made to introduce the Latin script in the Mongolian state, and after a preparatory phase, the Mongolian Cyrillic script was declared mandatory by government decree. From 1991 to 1994, an attempt at reintroducing the traditional alphabet failed in the face of popular resistance. In informal contexts of electronic text production, the use of the Latin alphabet is common.

In the People's Republic of China, Mongolian is a co-official language with Mandarin Chinese in some regions, notably the entire Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The traditional alphabet has always been used there, although Cyrillic was considered briefly before the Sino-Soviet split. There are two types of written Mongolian used in China: the traditional Mongolian script, which is official among Mongols nationwide, and the Clear script, used predominantly among Oirats in Xinjiang.

Loanwords and coined words

In distant times Mongolian adopted loanwords from Old Turkic, Sanskrit (these often through Uighur), Persian, Arabic, Tibetan, Tungusic, and Chinese. Recent loanwords come from Russian, English, and Chinese (mainly in Inner Mongolia). Language commissions of the Mongolian state have been busy translating new terminology into Mongolian, so that the Mongolian vocabulary now has jerönhijlögč 'president' ("generalizer") and šar ajrag 'beer' ("yellow kumys"). There are quite a few loan translations, e.g. galt tereg 'train' ('fire-having cart') from Chinese huǒchē (火车, fire cart) 'train'.


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